DIY Drain Cleaning

Clogs happen. Before you dive into a DIY fix, arm yourself with a few simple tools and basic information.

Considering all of the bends and converging streams in a home’s waste lines (and the stuff we flush down them), it’s not surprising that drain pipes occasionally clog. Fortunately, many blockages can be cleared with a few inexpensive tools. To avoid doing harm, you need to choose the right tool, dodge common mistakes and know when to call a drain-cleaning service or licensed plumber.

Essential Tools
Every homeowner should have a plunger, a closet auger and a 25-ft. snake (photo, below). Buy all three (for about $40) and you’ll be set for life. The plunger is for most fixtures. The auger is exclusively for toilets. And the snake is for drain and waste lines. If these manual tools fail, you can rent a power auger for about $35.

Your plumbing arsenal should include a closet auger, a 25-ft. snake and a bell-shape plunger to clear common clogs in sinks, tubs, showers, toilets and drain/waste pipes. Choose a pistol-grip-style snake that can be operated with a hand crank or power drill.

Before you tackle a clogged drain, visualize how the pipes bend and converge and where the obstruction is most likely located. If one toilet, sink, shower or tub drains slowly, the dam probably is in or very close to the fixture’s trap. But if waste from above is backing up in a lower-level floor drain or fixture, the blockage probably is downstream in the main drain or sewer line. My rule of thumb: the newer the pipe, the smaller its diameter and the more localized the problem, the easier it will be to fix. Old plumbing is more fragile, and big pipes require big, aggressive tools best left to pros.

Toilet clogs can be nasty for a couple of reasons. First, you can end up with a flood on the floor. Then there’s the matter of pulp and poop. Clogs usually occur in the tight bends in the toilet’s internal trap. If a kid flushes a toy, you may have to remove the entire toilet to retrieve it: You can’t disassemble a toilet trap for cleaning.

As soon as you suspect a toilet backup, turn off the water-supply valve and grab an empty wastebasket to bail water if needed. Position a plunger over the hole in the bottom of the toilet and maintain a seal as you push and pull vigorously several times. Then quickly lift the plunger off the hole. The plunger creates a pull-push “wave” action that loosens and rearranges compressed material so it can fl ow through the trap. Repeat the sequence several times if needed, and don’t be timid: You won’t harm anything with a plunger.

If this approach fails, switch to the closet auger (photo, below). Its stiff plastic sleeve enables you to work a comfortable distance above the wastewater while protecting the porcelain from being scratched by the coiled wire snake. Retract the handle out until the auger tip is against the end of the crooked sleeve. Insert the curved end into the hole. Support the tube with one hand while gently advancing the snake and turning the handle clockwise with your free hand. When the spring grabs the clog, pull back on the handle (not the sleeve) while continuing to rotate the handle clockwise to draw the material back into the bowl. You might have to repeat this a few times with the auger sleeve swung one way or the other to completely dislodge the blockage.

To avoid scratching the porcelain bowl, insert the closet auger’s protective sleeve into the trap as far as it goes before advancing the snake. Rotate the handle clockwise as you push to grab the clog. Swing the auger to each side to ensure the trap is clear.

If the water level is high enough, the bowl should begin to drain as you conquer the clog. Rather than flush the toilet, pour water directly into the bowl from a 5-gallon bucket so you can deliver water quickly but control the quantity. When you’re done, clean the plunger and auger, and dry and lubricate the auger’s metal parts with a product such as WD-40 to prevent rust. If the clog is beyond the reach of the 3-ft. auger, you’ll need to access the blockage from a cleanout or by removing the toilet.

Many sink clogs can be dislodged with a plunger. Start by filling the sink partially with hot water. If it’s a bathroom sink, stuff a wet cloth into the overflow drain to block the airflow and achieve maximum pressure. For a two-basin kitchen sink, block the other drain (photo, below). Then follow the same plunging technique described for toilets.

Seal the other drain when plunging a double sink. Plunge several times before lifting the plunger. Flush with a bucket of hot water when water begins to drain. Then repeat with the other drain.

Even if the plunger approach works, it is still wise to remove and clean the trap to discourage future clogs. Place a bucket below the trap to catch the water that flows out when you remove it. Loosen the threaded fittings on a plastic trap and on the horizontal trap arm by hand; use a pipe wrench for brass fittings. If the trap and arm are clean, check the tailpiece from the sink and the stub-out from the wall. Pull down the clog from above, or insert a snake into the stub-out to eliminate blockages. On bathroom sinks, you may have to remove the lever that lifts the stopper and take out the stopper to gain access to the tailpiece. Simply loosen the retention nut that fits around the pivot ball.

Wastewater moves faster and more effectively through smooth, clean pipes. Food from garbage disposers can settle in traps and stub-outs, especially when coated with grease or soap scum. To ensure that waste is flushed from the trap and stub-out, run hot water down the drain for 10 to 15 seconds before and after using the disposer, and avoid putting stringy and fibrous garbage down the disposer. In bathroom sinks, hair and soap are typical causes of clogs.

Tubs and Showers
Soap scum and hair conspire daily to slow tub and shower drains, so backups seldom come as a surprise. To plunge a tub, first remove the stopper or the drain screen. The stopper may be secured with a small set screw. If there is no stopper visible, depress the lever at the overflow drain to lift the internal drain plug out of the way. Use a short length of wire to remove matted hair just below the screen or stopper. That may be all that’s needed.

If you need to plunge, block the overflow drain with a wet rag and fill the tub with about 6 in. of hot water. Plunge vigorously several times before quickly lifting the plunger. Repeat several times if needed.

If the plunger and wire fail, move to the snake. You will probably need to reach the clog from the overflow rather than the drain to get past the sharp angle. Feed the snake down the vent tube and rotate the handle clockwise to hook the clog (photo below).

To unclog a bathtub, insert the snake through the tub’s overflow drain rather than from the main drain to reach the obstruction.

Shower drains are simpler: After lifting off the screen, you can plunge or snake directly from the drain.

Conquering a Fear of Snakes
A plumbing snake is a flexible spring-steel cable that’s coiled inside a drum with a free-turning sleeve and a rotating handle. Unlike a flat electrician’s fish tape that curves in one direction, a plumber’s snake can bend in any direction and has a slightly larger open spring (rather than a hooked end) to avoid snagging on joints. The drum can be clamped to the cable anywhere along its length. This enables you to rotate the tip whether you have 2 ft. or 25 ft. of snake in the pipe.

To use a snake, loosen the lever or nut that secures the cable to the drum, and feed the cable into the pipe until you feel an obstruction. Secure the drum to the cable about 16 in. from the end of the drain opening and rotate the handle clockwise as you gently feed the tip into the pipe. This will enable the cable to wiggle past a bend or drill into the clog.

If the resistance is just from a bend, loosen the nut and play out more cable until it stops again. Then retighten the nut and resume rotating and pushing. Continue to work the snake back and forth through the clog. Rotating clockwise will grab the material in the drain; counter-clockwise will release it. When screwing the snake clockwise, you may be able to pull out the clog. However, simply moving the cable back and forth will often break up the mass so it can be flushed into the larger pipe downstream.

Power Snakes
Hand snakes are fine for clearing clogs within 25 ft. of a clean-out if the pipe is no larger than 2-1/2 in. dia., but reel-mounted electric snakes (photo, below) are more effective on longer or larger-diameter pipes. These tools can be fitted with large spring or cutter ends that grab or slice through clogs. Some have clutch-activated auto-feeds that pull or push the snake in the pipe as the motor spins the tip.

You can rent an electric sewer snake for serious clogs deep in drain/waste pipes. This unit features a foot-pedal control that enables the operator to keep both hands free. A clutch-activated arm feeds or retracts the snake as it spins.

When using an electric snake, it is safest to locate the clog with a spade tip (photo, below), which will drill without snagging. Then switch to a spring head. Cutter heads are designed for soil pipes blocked by tree roots, which could snag a spring head. (The last thing you need is to get a rental snake stuck in a pipe.) Because cutter heads can damage pipes, only experienced operators should use them.

Electric snakes have interchangeable tips. Locate the clog with the spade bit before switching to the spring. Aggressive cutter heads should not be used by inexperienced operators.

To reduce risks to pipes, always use the appropriate size of tool and tip based on the pipe diameter and clog characteristics. Slowly advance the tip at a low rotation speed. Professionals have cameras to peer inside pipes so they can choose the right tool. Some use pressurized water (hydro-jetting) rather than cutters to remove obstructions and scour away muck.

You can rent 50-ft. power snakes for half a day for $40 to $50. Ask for and read the operator’s manual, and get some instructions from the rental store before you power up the machine. Tip: Leave yourself enough time to rinse the snake thoroughly before returning it or you’ll face a steep cleaning fee. It can take longer to clean the snake than to remove a clog.

Chemical Drain Cleaners
Caustic lye-base drain cleaners are appealing because they are inexpensive (about $7 a liter) and can dissolve hair and grease in sinks and tubs in as little as 15 minutes without disassembling pipes. But they are poisonous and can burn or blind if they splash on skin or in eyes. What’s more, if the chemicals fail, you will be in double trouble. Makers warn against plunging a fixture or snaking the pipe after applying chemicals because of the splash risk. Instead, they recommend that you double down with the same product. For this reason, I prefer plungers and snakes for serious clogs.

Enzyme-base drain cleaners (left) take longer but are safe in garbage disposers and toilets. Lye-base cleaners (right) are fast but dangerous and cannot be used in disposers or toilets. Follow directions and precautions meticulously.

If you do use a caustic drain cleaner, read the directions and follow them carefully. That includes wearing safety glasses and long rubber gloves, opening the nearest window, removing any standing water and covering the drain with a non-aluminum plate after applying the prescribed amount of product. Don’t even touch the bottle with your bare hands. If you get the smallest amount of chemical residue on your hands and rub your eyes, you will be in big trouble. If a drain cleaner fails, don’t try a different chemical because it could erupt when it reacts with the first. Instead, double down and repeat with the original product. Lye-base drain cleaners cannot be used in sinks with garbage disposers or in toilets.

Another option relies on bacterial enzymes to eat organic material. These natural drain cleaners are for slow — not completely blocked — drains and may take several hours or multiple applications over a period of days to work. Enzyme cleaners can be used in garbage disposers, toilets, tubs or sinks. Because you can’t use a drain for several hours after applying the product, consider treating it before you leave for work or go to bed. If the product dislodges a lot of material, you may have to pour boiling water down the drain or use a plunger to restore the flow. To keep pipes clean, use an enzyme-base buildup remover once a month.

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